Baseball is different. Sometimes it's hard to put your finger on the distinction between the feelings that baseball provides and the experience of other sports. But sometimes, such as Monday in Houston, when Albert Pujols hit his mammoth, season-saving home run for St. Louis, it's definitely not.
No other sport stuns us as suddenly and completely as baseball. Perhaps that's because no other game pays so much attention to the percentages. As fans, we almost always have an approximate sense of the likelihood, or utter improbability, of any event actually occurring. For example, we know that in the entire history of the game, only one team has been down to its final out before elimination from the postseason, then hit a home run to take the lead and ultimately win the game. That batter was the Red Sox' Dave Henderson in the ninth inning of Game 5 of the '86 ALCS. The pitcher was the Angels' Donnie Moore. Boston won in extra innings, then took Games 6 and 7 in Boston to reach one of the most thrilling World Series ever played. So, frequency: About once per century. Don't hold your breath.
However, two other percentages were also in play in this year's Game 5 of the NLCS, both misleading us into thinking that we had a firm handle on the limits of what was possible and what was too foolish to imagine. First, the Astros, thanks largely to their great closer, Brad Lidge, had taken a lead into the ninth inning this season on 85 occasions and won 84 of those games. Also, Lidge began the ninth inning by striking out the first two Cardinals, then getting two strikes on David Eckstein. Two-run lead. No one on base. One strike to go.
At that moment, what were the odds of Houston winning its first pennant in 44 seasons of existence? The Astros were so close to 100 percent that there was no point in parsing that final decimal point. The Astros actually had an NL Championship flag furled in center field, rolled up at the top of their Back-to-Back Wildcard banner. All they had to do was cut the cord and let it drop.
Yet, in the span of just eight pitches, baseball proved once again that, just to show off, it can drop a redwood tree on our heads whenever it wants. A team that had held 84 of 85 leads and had a two-run lead with two outs and nobody on base was suddenly beaten in its own park by a type of home run that had been hit once in more than a century.
That's just magnificently ridiculous.
And it comes on the heels of the past two postseasons, which brought us the "Curse Games" of Grady Little and Steve Bartman in '03 and, probably, the greatest comeback in U.S. pro sports last October by the Red Sox. Don't forget that the '01 Series may have been the best ever played with bottom-of-the-ninth, game-saving homers on consecutive nights at Yankee Stadium by Scott Brosius and Tino Martinez, only to culminate in a bottom-of-the-ninth, Game 7 come-from-behind win by Arizona.
All of these things, at the time, seemed far beyond the sane percentages of baseball, established over a century just so we'd be even more amazed.
As a bonus, Monday's homer might have gone 500 feet if the stadium roof had been open, and it was struck by a 25-year-old whose first five seasons imply that he may someday be regarded as one of the top dozen players ever. Only Mel Ott and Eddie Mathews reached 200 homers at a younger age. No one, except Pujols, has hit 30 or more homers in his first five seasons. Only Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Al Simmons started their careers with five 100-RBI seasons. Oh, his career batting average is .332, he leads by deeds, never brags and is such a strong yet modest role model that you fear for his future. What wrath will the public invoke if he ever forgets to gargle?
In an added twist, Pujols's home run highlighted an element of strategy that doesn't exist in any other sport. In the NBA, nobody could ever say, "We don't want Michael Jordan to take the last shot against us." In the NFL no foe could say, "On this final two-minute drive, you can't play John Elway at quarterback. Find somebody else to beat us. Sorry about that."
But the Astros could have intentionally walked Pujols. Erased him. And, instead, pitched to Reggie Sanders with his horrific .197 career postseason average in 246 playoff plate appearances. In fact, after Pujols's homer, Sanders struck out looking, as he often does against Lidge's curveball. And as, odds are, he probably would have if Phil Garner had waved four fingers.
Why didn't the Astros' manager walk Pujols? Come on, we all know. It would have put the tying run in scoring position. And that is (all together), against the percentages. So, Phil, how does playing it by the book look now?
Maybe the book is for April, May, June, July, August and September. In October, perhaps managers should just listen to the screams from tens of millions of living rooms. The strength of human emotion takes over so often and shreds the book. Maybe the fans know best. "Grady, take Pedro out. Look at his body language. He's toast." Or "Phil, please, pitch to anybody but Pujols."
Other sports surprise us. But, especially in this new century, baseball has set a new standard for shock. Time after time, series and seasons have turned on events that, if you'd said, "Stop. Get me a bookie," no one would have taken your bet. Out of pity.
For baseball, this is an age of wonder. After all, the White Sox just reached the Series in part because, in three games, obscure A.J. Pierzynski benefited from freak plays. Once, he started a game-winning rally by striking out. Once, his (undetected) interference with a batter led to a rally-killing double play. Finally, he started a series-clinching rally with a dribbler back to the pitcher. The odds, please?
So, what happens next here in Busch Stadium, a ballpark that, before Pujols swung, looked like it would never hold another baseball game? Doesn't a stadium, given a second life before the wrecking ball arrives, have powers of its own?
Besides, after Pujols's theatrics, doesn't everybody (except the Astros) want to see a Game 7 in which Roger Clemens would pitch for Houston? Two Octobers ago, the Rocket retired with the kind of pomp that would embarrass almost any man into staying retired. What were the percentages then that he would win a seventh Cy Young Award in '04 and a seventh ERA title in '05 at age 43?
And now, what are the odds that this NL season can end in any other way than with Clemens, for the second straight year, taking the mound for his hometown team in a pennant-at-stake game against the classy Cards?
We think we know what's coming. Which means, odds on, we don't.